Hidden Blessings

I believe that everyone goes through a series of important events in their lives that shape the person they will become as an adult. Some people have called these moments “rights of passage”, and somehow these key moments make slight course corrections in our journey. In remembering my younger years, I can recount experiences that still effect me in various degrees even to this day. I think perhaps the most significant experiences a person can have as a child, involve the people in their immediate family. Being the youngest of five children, and nearly six years younger than my next oldest sibling, the experiences I had in my young life were a bit more “mature” compared to other kids my same age. My mom would always tell me, “Your siblings always wanted you to be older and act older. They never let you just be a little boy.” This was probably why, as I grew older, I was always more comfortable around older people when it came to social interactions. I understood the more mature nuances of body language and topics of conversation.

One of the advantages of being mentored by my older siblings was being shown and taught how to do the things that they did. This included everything from operating farm machinery, to handling farm animals, to enjoying various recreational activities like snowmobiling and motorcycle riding. My brothers, Dale and Randy, both had their own motorcycles and I envied how they could just hop on their bikes and ride, and I was stuck riding a pedal bike (even though it had a cool red, white and blue banana seat and sissy bars with tassels). I tried to make the best of my bicycle by building little ramps to “launch” myself off of or popping wheelies. But who am I kidding, nothing compared to being able to drive fast and make huge jumps over gravel piles on a motorcycle.

When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I remember riding my first motorbike. It was called a mini-bike and it had a small 3-1/2 horse Briggs and Stratton motor and you accelerated by simply pushing on a lever on the handle bars which made it go, or you pulled on the brake handle to stop. You didn’t have to shift gears, so it was very easy to operate, at least it looked like it was when I watched my brother do it!

The day came when my dad said I could try riding the mini-bike myself. I remember that both of my brothers and my sister Becky were all outside in the back yard of the house. My dad was holding the bike and said, “Okay Dwight, to start this motor you need to make sure that the gas valve is open. See this lever right here? You need to make sure the lever’s arm is set in the same direction as the gas line.” I said, “Okay dad, I see”. Then dad said, “Next you want to move the choke lever right here toward the back. See it right here, it says, “Choke”? I said, “Yes, I see it.” “Okay”, he continued, “Now you want to grab onto this rope handle here and give it a few pulls until the motor starts. Now as soon as it fires up, you want to move the choke lever back to the “Run” position, otherwise it will flood it and die. Make sense?” “Yep, I think so. Looks the same as starting the lawn more right?” My dad smiled at me and said, “You got it. Okay, now watch” I watched intently as my dad gave the cord a couple swift pulls and the engine roared to life. I could feel my heart starting to race and I looked around at my siblings scattered about the lawn. My sister Becky was pulling dry linens off the clothes line and my oldest brother Dale was tossing a football around with Randy. I looked back at my dad and he said, “You ready to give it a shot? All you need to do is push on this lever and give it some gas to go.” I nervously climbed onto the bike seat and held onto the handlebars. The motor was idling and I could feel the vibration of the bike through my entire body.

Luckily, I was tall for my age so I had no problem being able to put my feet down on the ground to steady myself. I thought, “Okay, how hard can this be? I know how to ride a bicycle so I can do this. I just don’t have to pedal.” With that, I slowly pushed on the gas lever and I felt the spinning clutch grab ahold of the belt and I lurched forward. I could hear my dad say, “Keep it straight until you get a hang of it.” My brothers were yelling, “Watch out Becky, he’s coming your way!” I looked quickly ahead of me and I could see the clothes basket on the ground and my sister started to scream, “Turn, turn!!” My left arm had a mind of it’s own and it jerked the handle bar just in time for me to wiz by my sister and all the clothes in the basket.

It was an amazing feeling! I was free on this little motor bike and I felt like a king. As I circled the house turning to the left a bit more and doing minor course corrections, I came around the house back to where my dad was standing. He yelled, “Go, go!” I felt my confidence rise and my brothers were laughing at the expression on my face, which was likely pure horror mixed with wide-eyed joy. I began my next trip around the house feeling more and more confident. I decided to move the handle bar back and forth so I could sway a bit and I felt like I was a big time motor-cross rider. I passed by my dad again and he yelled, “Okay, when you come back around, I want you to stop.” I thought to myself, “Stop? My dad never told me how to stop!” I focused on making another round of the house and as I approached my dad, he said, “Stop.. stop!” and as I blew past him I yelled, “I DON’T KNOW HOW!” I could hear my brothers roar with laughter as I continued my next revolution around the house. As I came around the house again, I could see that my dad was ready. As I approached him, he stuck out his big strong arm and swept me up off from the bike seat in one motion and the mini-bike continued on and crashed to the ground and sputtered to a stop.

“Whew!”, my dad said. “I got you!?” I found myself equally in shock and laughing at the same time. I felt relieved that I was saved by my dad. It was the most exhilarating moment I’d had at my young age and I loved it. I was hooked on the freedom and joy that riding motorcycles gave me and grateful that my dad spent time with me and encouraged me to take this risk. I felt like I had made another step in growing up and my dad and siblings were there to witness it. This began my love affair with riding motorcycles.

When I turned 10 years old, my parents gave me my first “real” motorcycle on my birthday. I remember waking up on the morning of my birthday and seeing a motorcycle helmet setting on my bedroom dresser. I still remember thinking, “Who put this helmet in my bedroom?”, as I was still trying to wake up. Then with a rush of excitement, I held my breath and pulled back my curtains and looked outside at the farm-yard. And there it sat, a brand new Honda XL-75 motorcycle with gold and black coloring. I quickly pulled on my blue-jeans and a shirt and bolted for the hallway and stairway going down to the kitchen. I think I had tunnel vision as I don’t recall seeing anything else but the door leading out to the front of the house. I stopped a few feet from the motorcycle and just stared. It was a cross between a dirt bike and a street bike so it had all the accessories including mirrors and turn signals. Unfortunately navigating a motorcycle with more power had its downfalls which including tipping over many times. So as you can imagine, the turn signals broke off first and then the mirrors got a bit bent out of shape. In hind-sight, I should have just taken them off until I mastered the bike, but a 10 year old doesn’t really think that far ahead. I rode many miles on that motorcycle riding the pastures, hunting gophers, herding cows or riding around the local gravel pit. I was my first real feeling of independence as a boy and I loved it!

It was mid-summer of 1978 and I was barely 13 years old, and on rare occasion there were days that have perfect weather and not a lot of work to be done. This is unusual as we lived on a working dairy and grain farm, where continuous hard work was the norm. This day was unusual. It was a Saturday in July and our parents were off on a day trip to visit relatives at an annual family reunion in Wahpeton, ND. The only people home were my older brother Randy and me and we had finished our morning chores and had the rest of the day to ourselves before the evening chores began.

My brother Randy is about 7 years older than me and ever since I can remember, I idolized him. He was very outgoing, he had a lot of friends, played sports, acted goofy and loud, loved music, and was a very free spirit. I wanted desperately to be like him and I wanted him to like me. But as it is for many sibling relationships, it’s not that easy sometimes. For some reason, I was never able to get close to him when I was younger. He tended to ignore me and would often tease me for various reasons. Even with all of that, I still tried to connect when I thought I might have a chance.

Randy and I had decided to go for a motorcycle ride around some of the fields on our property. By this time I had upgraded my motorcycle and I was now riding a used Honda XL-125 dirt bike; so keeping up with my brother who was riding a XL-250 was a little bit easier. One of the reasons my parents had decided to take time off for the family reunion was because we had received a heavy rain storm the night before. This had caused all the hay fields to be soaked and many of the ones we had already cut would not be ready to bail until they had dried. The even better part, was that this also made the fields soft to ride on and some of the lower areas of land were full of water. Randy and I raced around the fields on our bikes weaving in and around the slough areas kicking up mud and hollering our heads off. This was an amazing time for me because I felt like, for the first time, I was bonding with my brother.

As we rode around, Randy had spied a particular low spot of land that was covered with water which was about 20 to 30 feet across. I saw him waiving me over as he sat by the edge of the pond with his bike. When I rode up he slipped up the plastic visor on his helmet and said, “Hey, let’s see if we can make it across the pond. You wait behind me and if I make it across, you give it a shot okay?” I said, “Sounds great!”. So I revved up my motor and circled around behind him. He turned and gave me the “thumbs up” and pushed his visor down. I watched him pull his clutch lever and put it into first gear. He revved is motor a few time and then let the clutch go and off he flew toward the water’s edge.

In that very moment time stopped, and everything went into slow motion. I was simultaneously witnessing my brother rocket down this hill and then seemingly gliding across the water of this little pond, and feeling a barrage of mud, water and dirt being splattered all over myself and my motorcycle. I had mud in my mouth, on my face, stuck to my clothes, helmet and boots. In that very moment I could hear nothing, everything was frozen and I was in shock! In the next moment, I began to laugh hysterically and this folly! I grabbed my handle bars and turned away from the pond and began driving out of the field and toward the house all while belly laughing at what had just happened. In the next moment, I saw my brother ride up next to me with and expression of horror on his face, and probably frightened that I was crying or hurt. He then saw that I was laughing and started to laugh with me. We rode back to the farm house and recounted our little adventure and laughed while we used the hose to wash down our bikes. To this day, I still don’t know if he had planned to splatter me with mud or if it was just a, wrong place at the right time, kind of thing. It really didn’t matter because I had gotten what I wanted from my brother, to be seen and to be connected with. If I could, I’d do it all over again.

My oldest brother Dale is only a year older than Randy, but he has a very different approach to life. In a word, I would describe him as steadfast. He is like the metronome of our family with a steady, constant beat that moves forward resolutely and without failing. He has a saying he likes to use when talking about tough times, he says, “We just need to press on.” and that is exactly what he does every day.

Like both of my parents, Dale is a very hard working person. He always looks at whatever task he is given, or decides to do, and breaks it down into a sequence of steps. I always admired him as a young boy because if I was ever confused about what needed to be done or how to do it, I would just watch him and listen. He always seemed to have a plan and it felt like it was very well thought through. It gave me a sense of safety and comfort to know that he was around to rely on for guidance. He was also my protector in a way. When my brother Randy would tease and bully me, Dale would intervene if he was there. I remember one time, I was upstairs in our farm house and Randy was relentlessly bullying me to the point of tears. And just then, Dale came flying out of his bedroom, yelling at Randy to leave me alone. I was stunned. I don’t remember anyone ever standing up for me before like that. I was grateful that I had a protector in my oldest brother.

Like most farm families, we oftentimes worked together. I remember one summer day when bailing hay in the alfalfa field west of our farm, I was told to join my two brothers and dad. I needed to learn how to ride the bail skid that was pulled behind the bailer and stack the bails as they came off from the back. The bail skid was basically two 4ft x 8ft pieces of plywood bound together by a metal frame to make a flat 8ft x 8ft square skid that was hitched behind the bailer. As the hay bails came out of the bailer bound by twine, you would grab the bail and stack it in a criss-cross pattern on the bail skid until the stack was about 5 or 6 feet high. Then when it was a full stack, you would take a large metal rod and drive it into the ground through a two inch gap between the pieces of plywood which would force the entire stack of bails off from the skid. Stacking bails was hard work, but I loved being able to help my dad and brothers. We told jokes, yelled directions back and forth with dad and tossed the bails higher and higher.

When we had stopped for a break to drink water and eat some sandwiches my mom had made for us earlier in the day, I remember listening to my brothers talking as my dad worked on the bailer. All of the sudden, Dale began jumping around like he was dancing and yelled, “Oh crap, what is that.” and both Randy and I looked at him with confusion because we didn’t know what he was talking about. Just then, Dale began hitting the side of his leg with his hand saying, “Shit, shit, shit…” Then he grabbed a big section of his blue-jean pant leg in his hand and squeezed it hard. Randy and I, still stunned, said, “What’s going on!?” Dale yelled, “I have a mouse trying to crawl up my pant leg!”. Both Randy and I started roaring with laughter! “Holy crap!”, Randy said. I was out of breath laughing as I watched Dale trying to unbuckle his belt and pull off his pants with his one hand in the middle of the hay field. Dale managed to do all of this without loosing grip on the mouse. Even in the throws of having vermin crawl up his leg, I was impressed with how Dale remained in control and determined. This was another example of how I looked up to him and how to behave in a crisis. Finally after removing his pants and dumping out the body of the mouse, we re-assembled ourselves and continued to “press on” with our bailing.

Dale was also the first person in our family to really go off on his own. First he ventured into the Peace Corp in Guatemala where he leveraged his knowledge of agriculture and animals by assisting with irrigation, animal management, and raising turkeys. When he would come home for visits, it was always amazing to hear his stories of the experiences he had there. After the Peace Corp he met and married an woman from Brazil, then he joined the Air Force which took him and his family around many places in the USA and the world. The experiences and knowledge he gained has always amazed me and I could listen to him for hours on end and never get bored. I think I would have to say that Dale has inspired me the most to become more curious about the world and not afraid to travel.

For many young boys, idols are often characters in books, television or in the movies, but for me it was my dad and brothers. Each experience I had whether it was triumphs, teasing, work, or being protected; each had a significant impact on who I am today. I see each of these moments as gifts and even blessings. I look up to these men in my life and yearned to be connected to them. It’s now over 40 years later and I still have that same yearning and I think I always will.

Dwight Jon Raatz
Memoir, Non-Fiction
3/3/2018

The Present

It was dark, cold, and snowing outside as I found myself wedged into the back seat of my dad’s blue 1978 Oldsmobile Delta 88. My mom was in the front seat and three of my siblings were in the seat next to me as we waited for my dad to come out of the house. It was Christmas Eve and we were on our way to my grandparents house for the annual gathering where we exchanged gifts and ate way to much food. I remember staring out the car’s front window into the garage. I was looking at the house entrance door when I said, “What’s taking him so long?”. One of my older siblings smiled at me and said, “I think dad had to go to the bathroom.” I was quite then as I listened to the car heater blasting out hot air and I could feel the heat building inside my jacket. I thought about the small plate of cookies with a half-glass of milk we left on the counter for Santa. I was excited and anxious about having this man or super-natural creature in our home when we were gone. I felt a sense of wonder how Santa could get all of the presents delivered across the world in one night, but also excited to see what he would bring.

The drive to my grandparents house was usually met with cold snowy weather and there was always a sense of tension about being stuck in the snow or even stranded at their house and not being able to get home. Since I was very young, I had to release my fears of this and have faith that my father knew best and would always keep us safe. The conversation during our drive was usually about local events in the town or sometimes a bit of gossip about the relatives we were going to see. I mainly did not have any input, and for the most part would just listen and try to make sense of it all. I found that my thoughts would drift back to the counter at home where the cookies sat, wondering at what point he would break into our house to eat them and leave us gifts under our tree. I wondered what else Santa would do while he was there. Did he go into my room? Did he take a dump in our toilet? In a way, the thought of this creeped me out, but I wasn’t supposed to feel that way. After all, Santa was a good guy right?

When we reached my grandparents farm, the yard had turned into a makeshift parking lot. The snow had been plowed carefully allowing a maximum number of vehicles near the house. As we unpacked ourselves from the warm car we immediately could feel the cold sharp wind on our faces. My mom said, “Take the roaster inside Becky. Boys, you grab the bags of gifts from the trunk and take them into the house.” Without much fuss, we followed orders and gathered our food and gifts. As we walked slowly toward the house, I could hear the crunch of snow under each step as I steadied myself for any unseen ice. Growing up in the northland, I had created a sense of the earth and how to interact with it based on the season. I had a respect for the outdoors and always guarded myself for the unknown and the unseen.

As we came closer to the house, I could hear the voices of many people inside. I could smell the aroma of turkey and savory foods coming out the door as we entered the house. We were met in the porch entry by my Uncle David with him saying, “Hello! Come on in! It’s a bit crowded as usual. You can put your boots and shoes over there, and coats can go in the closet if you can find a spot.” We quickly surveyed the room and found a place to stash our things.

As we filed through the door into the kitchen, I could see my grandma Mildred at the stove wearing a flower print apron over a dress that was likely the one she wore everyday. She was tending to the mash potatoes, turkey and various other traditional foods. She had an innate non-verbal way to direct what happened in the kitchen and everyone understood this language. She was a quiet presence in the home from what I remember. Whenever I would visit the farm in the summers, she was always working in and around the house. I would often spend time helping her tend the chickens, pull weeds from the garden, and taking lunches out to the fields for the men. I loved my grandma as she always smiled at me and gave me hugs. When I got sick, she tended to me with practical remedies and patience.

I also saw that my Aunt Caroline was sitting at the table talking non-stop with her sister Ginny who was blocked in between her and the wall. “Well, I couldn’t believe it when Tim was just standing there holding the tire iron and not moving, and I says, “Tim what are you doing?” And he looks up at me and says, “Nothin ma, just thinking about which is the best tire to use.”, and I says, “Well, what would Robert do in this case? Maybe you can just ask him.” and he says, “Okay ma.” And then …” I saw the look of numbness on Aunt Ginny’s face which was common when faced with the onslaught of words from Aunt Caroline. It was amazing, as I could swear that she had some kind of special ability to speak without ever pausing to breathe.

It was often overwhelming to me to take in all of the people in the house. My mom was one of 10 children which made for many aunts, uncles, cousins and associated spouses and children. The home was packed with people in every corner and room on the main floor. I would scan the room to see familiar and unfamiliar faces. The room that most of us kids would occupy was the back porch of the house. This was where my grandma kept her freezer with my favorite cookies and of course a cupboard with an assortment of toys. When I arrived in the room, I found my cousins eating cookies they had found in the freezer (lucky not my favorite ones) and sitting around card tables telling stories of their farms and families. I also noticed there was a strange young boy there sitting next to my cousin Duane. I found out later that his name was Jimmy Crud who was an exchange student from New Zealand staying with Duane and his family. Jimmy seemed like an odd sort with his black framed glasses and crocked smile, but that will story will have to wait for another time.

My cousin Duane was sitting at one of the tables shaking his head with a half-smile as he listened to my cousin Dustin spin another of his never-ending tales. Duane had bright red hair and his cheeks always seemed red too from their constant exposure to the cold winds and sunshine of the North Dakota winter. Dustin had dish-pan blonde hair that was always tousled and he had a facial twitch that always seemed like he was winking at you. Dustin said, “I was feeding the cows, so I was driving the 1456 tractor pulling the feed-wagon into the pasture, you know the one where Uncle Newton as that big angus bull? Well, as I was driving in the bull wouldn’t move, so I jumped down and yelled at him and gave him a swift kick in the side! Boy did he beller and run!” On hearing this, I looked at Duane and my other cousins and they were either rolling their eyes or shaking their heads. Dustin’s younger brother Cameron said, “You are so full of shit Dusty. That bull would have squashed you like a bug if you got off that tractor. They don’t call him old grumpy for nothin!” Just then my uncle Roger poked his head in the room and said, “Ok kids, it’s time to pass out presents.” Duane said, “Ok, let’s go!” As we were getting up, Dusty pushed Cameron out of the way so he could be first out of the room. Cameron gave him a playful kick in the butt. We all started pushing them both through the door into the living room trying to prevent a fight from breaking out.

Christmas presents at these events would involve bringing a present for someone of your own age and gender. These gifts would have a label stating, “Boy, Girl, Man, Woman” and then numbered. When it came time to open gifts, each of us would pick a number and when the gift’s number was called, you would get it regardless of your age or gender. I often thought this was confusing, but somehow it seemed to worked. As my cousins and I filed into the living room, Uncle David had a small basket raised higher than eyesight and he said, “Okay kids, reach in and pick out a piece of paper for your number. Remember, just pick one.” Each of us obediently stepped up one by one and took out a small piece of paper with a number on it. Immediately, Dusty exclaimed to our group, “I got number five, what did you get Lyle?”, speaking to another cousin of ours who was about my age. Lyle said, “I got number 23.” “Hah!”, said Dusty, “I’m going to get a better present than you because my number is before yours!” Once everyone had a number, my uncle David said, “Now there are 23 of us here tonight and I thought we’d do something a bit different. I think we will start in reverse order.” I could see that Dustin was obviously annoyed at this change-up of things. David looked over at Lyle and gave him a quick wink but I don’t think anyone else noticed. David said, “Who’s got number 23?”. With a smile on his face, Lyle said, “I do!”

When the presents were all passed out, we had the opportunity to exchange it with someone else if you wanted to. This was likely the best part of the gift exchange as it encouraged us to engage with each other and was often accompanied by laughter and poking fun at each other. Lyle ended up getting a new pocket knife with a pearl inlaid handle. Dusty received a girl’s gift which was a small toy pony that had a long braided mane and colorful saddle. Dusty tried desperately to trade the present with someone, but even some of the small girl cousins would not give him the satisfaction. He ended up walking over to the pile of presents belonging to my aunt Ginny (who’s daughter Kara was several years younger than I) and mumbled, “Stupid present to get.” and he quickly laid in on the pile and walked away. I think he was feeling a bit sheepish about spouting his mouth off and ending up with a girl’s toy.

When I look back at these visits, what I really enjoyed most was hearing stories of my grandparents, aunts and uncles as they homesteaded the area, grew their farms and worked the land. I never had a sense that Christmas or the presents given where the important part of this time of year. I thought of the bible stories of baby Jesus, the Wise Men and the Angels. I thought of the teachings of Christ and how it felt right to me that this time of year was about connecting with each other and most importantly, giving to those less fortunate. It may seem strange to most, but the receiving of a random present given with no consideration of who I am, made no sense to me. I always felt awkward in having to act surprised and happy at what I received. I was amazed when I observed that as quickly as the presents were opened, they were then piled up and readied for whenever each family left for the night. All of the “pomp and circumstance” of the presents and reasons for them was over as quickly as it began. Even in my young mind, I could never reconcile the way we gave presents to each other, with what I was being taught about the reason for Christmas. It was all so rote and mechanical that my feelings would get muddled and confused.

As the evening wound down and people were stuffed with food and drink and feeling the effects of the tryptophan high we got from the turkey, we parted ways and packed into our cars to go home. A few minutes into our drive home I asked, “Mom, why do you think Dusty tells such tall tales?” I looked up to see her shaking her head and she said, “I don’t know Dwight. Maybe he’s just lonely.” I wasn’t quite sure what to think about this. Everyone seemed to have an attitude about Dusty. I’ll admit I was uncomfortable with him at times too. I just wish I would have been a better cousin and friend to him.

The rest of the drive home was a bit treacherous as the snow was coming down harder and the roads were difficult to navigate. I was getting pretty sleepy and my mind was wondering about what we would find at home. Would “he” have been at our house? I had mixed feelings of excitement and fear each time I’d think about it. I suppose this is normal, but I never really had anyone else I could ask.

It varied from year to year on when my family would open presents. Sometimes it was the night we returned home from my grandparents, sometimes it was the next morning. This year we had left the farm fairly early as we had heard the weather was going to get worse. Arriving home we drove into the driveway to find a two foot snow drift had formed across the main area of the yard. It blocked our passage around to the car garage. My dad had to decide whether to try driving through it, or parking and getting out the FarmAll tractor to scoop a path through it. To this day, I’m not really sure why my dad decided to go for it. He put the car in reverse and backed up almost to the highway. He said, “You ready?!” and my brother Dale said, “Yes!” Then putting it in drive, by dad punched it and headed straight for the snow drift. I’m not sure how fast we were going when we hit, but all you could see was white powder everywhere. The car lurched left and then right and I slide forward off my seat onto the floor. We almost came to a complete stop but managed to have enough momentum to punch a hole through the drift and make it to the other side. With a cheer and small applause, we continued our way around to the garage entrance. We all piled out and grabbed the loot from the evening and the left over food we just “had” to take home with us and headed inside for the evening.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I was told the truth about Santa and why it always took dad so long to get out of the house on those cold Christmas eve nights. To tell the truth, I actually felt relieved when I found out that the sanctuary of our home was not being violated by a old man who had a passion for making toys for boys and girls, and loved it when they sat on his lap to hear their secret toy desires. I think it was about this time that I was able to clarify how I really felt about getting presents at Christmas. Now that the “Santa” mystery side of the equation was resolved, the only thing left was giving and getting the presents themselves. I had a strong belief that the act of giving presents was supposed to include two things. First, it was a way to honor someone you cared for. If you knew them well enough you could buy them a gift they really needed or wanted. Secondly, it was supposed to be a way to give to those less fortunate than ourselves in order to give them some joy and respite during that time of year. Unfortunately, what I witnessed about Christmas and giving gifts usually did not include either of these things. As I got older, this phenomena became more and more prevalent. I can’t say that I never received presents that I wanted, but I seemed to be very disenfranchised by the whole process and began to resent it. This effected me for years to come.

When we all got into the house, my mom turned on the stove top and pulled out a Jiffy-Pop popcorn pan to cook up a treat for us all as we prepared ourselves to open presents that night. I looked at the counter where I had left the cookies and milk and only saw a few remaining crumbs on the plate and just a few drops of milk in the glass. I looked around at my family, but no one else seemed to care that someone had been here when we were gone. I backed into a corner of the room and looked around thinking, what if he’s still here?! I cautiously looked around the edge of the doorway toward the living room and Christmas tree only to see blinking lights in a darkened room. I made sure to stay close to my mom pretending to want to help her with the popcorn and heating up the apple cider. I wasn’t about to go into the other room by myself. My brothers could go first!

My dad had come in from the garage and announced that the car was fine after our snow drift rampage. We all gave out a sigh of relief and I could see my dad winking at my mom as she smiled at him with a knowing look. It was a few years later that I finally had some kind of clue what those looks meant between them, but that’s a whole other topic for another time. Dad walked into our dining room and over to the stereo cabinet sitting in the corner of the room. He put on the traditional christmas album he always played. It had a kind of Mexican mariachi band sound with trumpets and of course, accordion music. He began to bob and weave in front of the cabinet to the beat of the music. I could always tell when my dad was in a good mood based on how close attention he paid to the music being playing. I remember one time in the milk barn, he was sitting on a small metal milk stool next to the calf pens when K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s song, “Shake Your Booty” came on the radio. I was watching him move to the music when the “Shake, shake, shake…” part came on, he raised both of his legs straight out in front of him and shook his knee high rubber barn boots. He fell straight off the stool onto his butt on the floor! He was laughing the whole time and it always made me smile when he goof around.

When the popcorn and cider were ready, we all gathered in the living room to find our spots for the remainder of the evening to open our presents. It was always the job of the youngest in the family to pass out the gifts, so I got busy sorting and routing the gifts to everyone in my family. I enjoyed finding each of my gifts and piling each of them safely as I’d keep count of them (just in case one of my siblings got any smart ideas to steal one). Once they were all passed out, we took turns opening one gift at a time. I didn’t realize it then, but as much as I liked to see what the gift was, I actually got more excitement from not knowing what was in each box. To this very day, having an unopened box represents endless potential of what it could be. Even if I order something on-line and get it a few days later, I will still let it sit on the table for awhile before opening. I know what should be in the box, but there is still a chance it could be something completely different! As I slowly opened each of my gifts, the mystery of the gift and the day faded a bit more.

There were a few times over the years that I tried to convince my family the idea of all of us giving to a local family in need rather than giving gifts to each other. This idea came about as we would struggle to figure out what to give each other. This was especially difficult when our families began to grow. The ideas I had were met with understanding and they seemed to like it, but they could not move away from the habit of giving presents to each other. We did however adjust our consumeristic practices a bit more when the family became so large it was very costly to buy for everyone. For several years we drew names so you would buy for just one other person. Then we moved to just buying the young children gifts, and finally dissolving the family wide gift exchange all together.

One thing that kind of revived my feelings toward giving presents, and the idea of Christmas, was when I started having my own kids. I supposed there was a part of me that could relive those days of fantasy, and I wanted my boys to feel that sense of wonder around the season. The hardest time came on the day that my youngest son also found out the truth about Santa. He took the news pretty hard. For some reason my older son had figured it out and when he was talking with his mom about it she said, “If you still want to get something from Santa, just don’t say anything.” When my youngest son found out he was crushed. At first I thought it was because the illusion or fantasy of Santa was something he whole heartedly believed, but later on I realized that it was not that at all. He was crushed because the two people he trusted most had lied to him for years. I also believe he was an advocate for the Santa story in the midst of his friends when they were telling him it wasn’t true. When he found out later that it was all a lie, he was very embarrassed. As a parent who subscribes to the story of Santa and tells this tale to their children, I think it’s difficult to know when you should let them in on the truth. I know for my son, he was angry about this for years until he himself started to have children, and now I see him spinning the same tale to them.

I became more and more hardened toward Christmas and the holidays the older I got. Nothing about this time of year is joyful for me. The season’s purpose is lost to consumerism, spending time together was at a minimum and a struggle to organize, and even if I told someone the things I wanted, it is usually ignored. I thought that the illusion of Christmas was just that, an illusion; and very few people actually remember what it’s all about. I dread this time of year more and more, especially after I got divorced and remarried and my family splintered even more. It feels as if our children see it as a burden or inconvenience to spend time with us. There is a huge focus on what should be bought without much consideration for actually spending time together. At the ending of the season we are left with things we don’t need, a lot of debt we also don’t need, and a sense of emptiness that we really never had time to just sit and connect.

I’ve been asked for many years to tell people what I want for Christmas. I have become adamant that all I want is time with my family. To me, this is the most important thing there is since I can see and feel how short life is. I can connect to my childhood an now understand that it was the time that I spent with my family that meant the most to me. Time is all I ask. If someone needs to give me something tangible, then write a card out to me that says it’s good for one date with them. It doesn’t need to be extravagant. We don’t need to spend a bunch of money on restaurants or meals. I’d be happy just to sit with my each one in my family and talk about life and how things are going for them. I want to hear their stories, their struggles and their dreams. I want to be available to them to help them in any way I can. This to me is the real reason for Christmas. To be present for the ones I love and in return, for them to be present for me.

Dwight J. Raatz
12/02/2017